Yesterday I did a bit of back-of-the-envelope math, and determined that dividing my lifetime earnings into my lifetime hours of working at being a writer mean I’ve netted about $5/hour since 1990. If I only do the math for the years since I began to sell professionally, leaving off the 10 years of apprenticeship, workshopping and frustration, that number shifts to about $10/hour.
Sobering? Maybe. But then, I haven’t ever looked to this to put the beans on the table. And that can be a bit liberating. A Much Bigger Name Author than I told me in private a couple of years ago that they envied me my flexibility to write what I wanted, as they felt stuck writing their Successful Series and working in their Successful Series Subgenre. I pointed out they could weep all the way to the bank while I am hanging on to the low-midlist with a fingertip death grip. We agreed that we envied one another’s problems.
Chris York refers to this as “trading up to a better class of problems.” I would love to be wrestling with the things that worry and bother Big Name Authors. The things that worry and bother me would have been the subject of deep envy in my self of five, ten and especially twenty years ago. And we all sound like we’re complaining about winning the lottery, if you’re a hard-working writer waiting on the result of your forty third agent query whilst staring at a pile of short fiction rejection slips.
Sometimes I think I make it look too easy. “Oh, hey, Lake sold another damned story.” But for my 250 short fiction sales, I have well over 1,000 rejections, more than 100 of them from Gordon van Gelder at F&SF alone. I’ve never sold to him, but I keep trying. To this day I have over 200 unsold short stories, virtually all of them permanently and rightly trunked. I have a handful of novels in the trunk, at least one of which will never see the light of day, several more only if I ever feel moved to redraft them from scratch. (As if I have the time…) I really, truly did spend 10 years (1990-2000) workshopping, writing, submitting hundreds of times without any success whatsoever, before my voice matured enough to be worth an editor’s trouble.
All that for $5 an hour?
And even if the market belly flops and I fall off the bookshelf, I’ll keep writing, and submitting, because that’s what I do. I’m a writer. Writers write. Even when chemo keeps my fingers away from the keyboard.
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that happens to take a lifetime to get right.